Today in History – July 8

On July 8, 1932, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell to its lowest point during the Great Depression.

This event was symptomatic of a decade of economic uncertainty that was precipitated by the crash in the fall of 1929, when U.S. stock prices declined dramatically. The resulting panic devastated the fortunes of many investors and caused major declines in consumption, industrial production, and employment, which in turn affected the U.S. and world economy for the next ten years.

New York Stock Exchange. Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer, Apr. 19, 1939. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

The U.S. stock market had expanded rapidly during the 1920s, attracting many inexperienced investors. George Mehales, a Greek immigrant who owned a diner in Spartanburg, South Carolina, began investing in the stock market just before the crash. “One day,” he recalled in a Federal Writers’ Project interview:

…one of my customers showed me how much money he was making in the market…It looked good to me, and I bit with what you folks call ‘hook, line and sinker.’…The first day of October in 1929 made me feel like I was rich…During the last days of October, my stocks began to drop. I was gambling on the margin. My brother called me and told me I would have to put up more cash. I went to the bank and put up all the cash I had in the bank with my brother…. I had about five thousand dollars invested. On that day of October 29, they told me I needed more cash to cover up. I couldn’t get it. I was wiped out that day…

George Mehales.” R. V. Williams, interviewer; Spartanburg, South Carolina, December 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division.

Mehales had lost everything, including his restaurant, which he had to sell at a rock bottom price. “I was wiped…I considered killing myself, ’cause I had nothing left.”

After the Crash

In the early 1930s, the United States moved further into economic instability, with the collapse of many banks, dramatically reduced spending on consumer goods, and increasing unemployment.

Waiting for Relief Checks, Calipatria, California. Dorothea Lange, photographer, Mar. 1937. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

President Herbert Hoover’s response to these crises disappointed many, including WWI veterans, many of whom found themselves impoverished. They rallied in Washington in 1932, hoping that they might be able to receive their military pension funds early. When Congress rejected their appeals, some members of this so-called, “Bonus Army” reacted with frustration and violence. U.S. Army troops were called in, and the image of U.S Army soldiers confronting the veterans of the Great War in the nation’s capital and virtually running them out of town did not sit well with the public.

Relief Clients, Urbana, Ohio. Ben Shahn, photographer, Aug. 1938. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

The “Dust Bowl”

Years of Dust Resettlement Administration rescues victims, restores land to proper use. Ben Shahn, artist; [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Resettlement Administration, 1936 (Government Printing Office)]. Posters: Artist Posters. Prints & Photographs Division

The United States’ industrial and financial centers were clearly affected by the economic downturn, but so was the nation’s agricultural core. The optimism of agricultural expansion in the 1920s gave way to despair in the Southern Great Plains, where the economy was devastated by bank failures, the drying up of credit, and extreme drought. In 1932, the barren soil was so dry that high winds created dust storms. “Black blizzards” of dirt moved across the region, obscuring the sun and settling in drifts. Unable to sustain themselves, some of the poorest farmers in Oklahoma, Texas, and southwestern Kansas abandoned their homes and farms in search of employment. The promise of a year-round growing season lured many of these so-called “Okies” to California. Eventually, the federal government organized migratory labor camps to assure dust bowl refugees decent living conditions.

Economic Recovery

The nation’s economy recovered over time, and historians continue to debate the origins of the recovery. Some credit the improvements to the influence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives—which attempted to stabilize the economy and encourage consumer confidence. These initiatives included the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Social Security Act of 1935, and the creation of job opportunities for the unemployed with work relief programs such as the Works Progress Administration. Others believe that the increased industrial production required by preparations for the United States’ entry into World War II fueled the recovery. Whatever the cause, it was clear that by the time that the United States entered World War II its economy had largely recovered.

Find out more about the period leading up to the crash of 1929 in the collection: Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929.

Explore the impact of the Great Depression on the lives of ordinary Americans through the work of writers, artists, ethnographers, actors, playwrights, and photographers employed in government work relief programs during the Depression.


Today in History – July 7

Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige External, perhaps baseball’s greatest pitcher ever, was born on July 7, ca. 1906, in Mobile, Alabama. Paige earned his nickname, Satchel, as a young boy carrying bags at railroad stations for passengers. After being convicted of petty theft, he was placed in a black reform school where he began refining his baseball skills. Five years later, the lean, long-armed Paige began pitching professionally for several teams in the Negro Southern Association, the Negro American League, and the Negro National League.

Satchel Paige
St. Louis Brown’s pitcher Satchel Paige. Bob Lerner, photographer, Sept 30, 1952. LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

In the late Thirties, any Negro League club could have beaten any white major league team. The best team in the world was the New York Yankees then, and if we played them with the Crawfords or Grays, they’d have had to go like hell to beat us.

Satchel Paige. In When the Game was Black and White: the Illustrated History of the Negro Leagues, by Bruce Chadwick. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1992), 84.

Paige’s pitching prowess drew huge crowds. A natural showman, Paige enjoyed driving from game to game in his Cadillac convertible. He also owned a bus and several airplanes with Satchel Paige’s All-Stars written on the side.

Barred from the major leagues because of his race, Paige showcased his skills by barnstorming across the country, pitching for any team willing to meet his price, and proving his mettle in organized exhibition games against the best players of the day. The exhibition games were extremely popular and provided one of the few opportunities for players in the U.S. to compete in integrated games:

I liked playing against Negro League teams, but I loved barnstorming. It gave us a chance to play everybody and go everywhere and let millions of people see what we could do. I just loved it. I’d have played every day of the year if I could.

Satchel Paige. In When the Game was Black and White: the Illustrated History of the Negro Leagues by Bruce Chadwick. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1992), 69.

Paige’s barnstorming years marked the pinnacle of his pitching career. He and Dizzy Dean, another legendary Hall of Fame pitcher, formed two barnstorming teams—one white and one black—which moved across the country in 1932.

His feats in such games became part of baseball mythology. Many a fan recounts a story about a game in which Paige intentionally walked the bases loaded with major leaguers, told his fielders to sit down, and then struck out the side.

Rob Ruck, “Paige, Satchel.” In African American Lives. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks, editors. (Oxford University Press, New York, 2004) 648.

In 1934, Paige beat Dean in four of six exhibition games while Dean was at the height of his career. To learn more about the barnstorming days, view the webcast featuring Timothy Gay discussing his 2010 book, Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson.

Many black players went to the Caribbean and Latin America, where the teams all were integrated. Paige pitched for several Latin American teams during the winters, including, in 1937, one in the Dominican Republic organized by dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo hired some of the best players money could buy, including Paige, in order to win. His Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo team won the 1937 Dominican baseball championship in the last inning. When Paige and his Trujillo team-mates returned to the states, they were banned from the Negro National League for the remainder of the 1937 season. In response, they formed their own well-received touring team for the duration of the ban.

Back cover of 1953 Baseball Game Program for Kansas City Monarchs and Indianapolis Clowns. (Branch Rickey Papers). By Popular Demand: Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s. Manuscript Division

Between 1939 and 1942, Paige’s pitching took the Kansas City Monarchs to four consecutive Negro American League Pennants and to another pennant in 1946. On July 19, 1948, Paige followed former Kansas City Monarchs teammate Jackie Robinson into the major leagues when he signed with Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians, becoming the American League’s oldest rookie at age forty-two. Robinson broke the color line in 1947, when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Paige pitched for three American League teams: the Cleveland Indians (1948-1949), the St. Louis Browns (1951-1953) and the Kansas City Athletics (1965). At fifty-nine years old in 1965, he was the oldest player ever in the Major Leagues. The right-hander was also black baseball’s best-known performer with a career that spanned half a century. By combining showmanship with talent, he became a baseball legend. In 1971, he was the first Negro League player elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Paige died in 1982.

“To tell you the truth,” Paige said in 1981, “all over Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, South America, everywhere I played, I had bouquets on my shoulder… I just could pitch. The Master just give me an arm… You couldn’t hardly beat me.”

Rob Ruck, “Paige, Satchel.” In African American Lives. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks, editors. (Oxford University Press, New York, 2004) 648.


Today in History – July 6

On July 6, 1957, Althea Gibson won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon. She was the first African American to win a tennis championship at the historic All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.

Althea Gibson, half-length portrait…. Fred Palumbo, photographer, 1956. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Born on August 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina, Gibson grew up in New York’s Harlem, a haven for black artists, musicians, and intellectuals in the 1920s. She took her first tennis lesson at the age of thirteen after receiving a tennis racket as a gift. A year later, she won her first tournament in a match sponsored by the American Tennis Association, a mainly African-American league.

Gibson won the national black women’s championship twice before attempting to gain entry into the U.S. National Tennis Championships in 1950. When it appeared that Gibson would not be admitted, Alice Marble, a four-time winner of the event, spoke out on her behalf in a letter to the American Lawn Tennis magazine. The United States Lawn Tennis Association then invited Gibson to the tournament, where she was the first African American to compete for the U.S. Nationals.

Gibson went on to win two U.S. National championships and to become the first African American to win the U.S. Nationals and the French Open. Between 1956 and 1958, she brought home several major titles, including the French Open singles and doubles, the Italian Open singles, Wimbledon singles and doubles, and the U.S. Open singles. In 1957, and again in 1958, Gibson was selected as athlete of the year by the Associated Press, the first black female so honored. In 1958, she wrote a book about her life called I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. In 1971, she was voted into the National Lawn Tennis Association Hall of Fame.

Gibson served as New Jersey’s commissioner of athletics from 1975 until 1985. In 1980 she was among the first six athletes elected to the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In 1991, she was the first woman to receive the Theodore Roosevelt Award, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top honor.

Tennis courts, Palm Beach, Fla. [between 1900 and 1906]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Gibson struggled against segregation throughout her career. Often she was denied entry into hotels and restaurants while on tour. Her perseverance in spite of these obstacles paved the way for many athletes who followed her, such as the tennis great Arthur Ashe.

Gibson’s same strength of character and purpose was shared by other ground breaking African-American athletes, including Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics during the height of Hitler’s propagation of Arian supremacy; and Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947.

On September 28, 2003, Gibson died after a long illness of respiratory failure at East Orange General Hospital in New Jersey. She was seventy-six years old. According to The Sports Network, several hundred mourners showed up to pay their respects to Gibson.


Today in History – July 5

On July 5, 1865, William Booth, an ordained Methodist minister and his wife Catherine, established the Christian Mission in London’s poverty-stricken East End. Renamed the Salvation Army in 1878, the Booths were determined to assail the twin enemies of poverty and religious indifference with the efficiency of a military organization. Booth modeled his organization after the British army, labeling ministers “officers” and new members “recruits.”

Remember the poor: a Salvation Army Christmas box, 1903. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

He espoused the religious doctrines subscribed to by mainstream Protestant evangelical denominations at the time. The Salvation Army was unique, however, in its commitment to establishing a presence in the most forsaken neighborhoods and in its provision for the absolute equality of women within the organization.

In 1880, the Salvation Army expanded to the United States. The movement also spread to Canada, Australia, France, Switzerland, India, South Africa, and Iceland. It now serves more than 100 countries.

As early as 1898, the Army had garnered enough attention for its unorthodox practices to become the subject of a popular satire, Captain Shout, S.A., a farcical comedy included in Rare Book Selections. The play tells the story of a Mrs. Gay, a “gay widow,” and her romantic conquest of a Salvation Army captain intent on converting her:

Ah–that charming Captain Shout is coming to convert me to-day. Ha, ha…I’ll just let them go ahead, as long as they send the Captain to me, for I do like him so much…I must have the piano open for him, for these Salvationists do love to sing and make a noise wherever they go.

A man may be down but he’s never out!” Home Service Fund Campaign-Salvation Army – May 19-26, 1919. Frederick Duncan, artist, 1919. Posters: World War I Posters. Prints & Photographs Division

North Carolina mill worker Enoch Ball discovered his life’s work at a meeting of the Salvation Army. “When I was about 22 year [sic] old,” he told writer Anne Winn Stevens in “Shave Them,” an interview for the Federal Writer’s Program of the Works Project Administration, “the Salvation Army came to town and started a big meeting in the old Methodist church…Me and my wife both went to the meeting. We was converted the first night.”

For Ball, the Salvation Army lived up to its name:

After I was converted I stopped drinkin’. The other boys in the gang made fun of me. They persecuted me at first and prophesied it wouldn’t be long before I’d be back drinkin’ with ’em. But I went right on livin’ right. Before long they began going to the meeting too. One by one they was converted…. Us boys that had been called the Wheathearts from the storeroom where we used to meet, was now called the Sweethearts – meaning good hearts.

[Shave Them]. Enoch Ball, interviewee; Anne Winn Stevens, interviewer; Asheville, N.C., August 1, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Within a few decades, the Salvation Army had become a respected charitable organization in the United States. During World War I, it was one of seven groups designated to raise money for the United War Work Campaign, an effort publicized in an “Address by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.,” featured in American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I. The Salvation Army operated 3,000 service units for the armed forces during World War II—and was one of the six civilian agencies folded in to the United Service Organizations (USO) when it was established in 1941.

Don’t forget the Salvation Army (My doughnut girl). Elmore Leffingwell and James Lucas, words; Robert Brown and William Frisch, music; New York: Broadway Music Corp., 1919. World War I Sheet Music. Music Division
Good-Bye Sally, Good Luck to You. Sergeant Sam Habelow, words & music; Boston, 1919. World War I Sheet Music. Music Division

The Salvation Army was aboot the only sect I had much respect for. They used to do a lot of good, and they got dom little thanks for it. That’s why they wear those droopy hats, you know. When they first come around, the people would pelt ’em with rotten eggs and vegetables and dom near anything they could lay their hands on. Durin’ the war, after they helped oot the soldiers the way they did, they built up a fine reputation.

MacCurrie.” Francis Donovan, interviewer; Thomaston, Connecticut, February 15, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

During the Great Depression, the Salvation Army provided food and lodging for those in need. The storefront pictured here, identified as the Newark, Ohio, Salvation Army headquarters, advertised the provision of “Transient Social Service, Meals and Lodging.”

Salvation Army headquarters, Newark, Ohio. Ben Shahn, photographer, Summer 1938. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and -White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

A panhandler tells Depression-era stories about his colorful colleagues:

Sammy would take a job once in a while if he thought there was something extra in it, like playin’ Santa Claus on the corner at Christmas. He liked to stand and figger how to get his hand in the little hole where the money goes down the chimney. I guess he never did figger that one out because the Salvation Army has been hirin’ guys like Sammy for years and knows its oats.

The Letter.” J. D. Stradling, interviewer; Chicago, Illinois, 1938-1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division


Today in History – July 4

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, announcing the colonies’ separation from Great Britain. The Constitution provides the legal and governmental framework for the United States, however, the Declaration, with its eloquent assertion “all Men are created equal,” is equally beloved by the American people.

July 4th fireworks, Washington, D.C. Carol M Highsmith, photographer, July 4, 2008. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

Philadelphians marked the first anniversary of American independence with a spontaneous celebration, which is described in a letter by John Adams to his daughter, Abigail. However, observing Independence Day only became commonplace after the War of 1812. Soon, events such as groundbreaking ceremonies for the Erie Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were scheduled to coincide with July 4th festivities.

Unanimous Declaration of Independence, Passed in the United States Congress… 1823. Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera . Rare Book & Special Collections Division

In 1859, the Banneker Institute of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, urged African Americans to celebrate Independence Day while bearing witness to the inconsistencies between the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the practice of slavery. Chairman of the meeting, Mr. Jacob C. White Jr., also promised his audience a brighter future:

We have learned by experience and by the comparison of ourselves with people similarly situated, to hope that, at some day not very far in futurity, our grievances will be redressed, that our long lost rights will be restored to us, and that, in the full stature of men, we will stand up, and with our once cruel opponents and oppressors rejoice in the Declaration of our common country, and hail with them the approach of the glorious natal day of the Great Republic.

Mr. Jacob C. White Jr., Introductory Remarks. In The Celebration of the Eighty-Third Anniversary of the Declaration of American Independence by the Banneker Institute…July 4, 1859 Philadelphia: W.S. Young, 1859. p.8 African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

By the 1870s, the Fourth of July was the most important secular holiday on the calendar. Congress passed a law making Independence Day a federal holiday on June 28, 1870. Even far-flung communities on the western frontier managed to congregate on Independence Day. In an American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, interview, Miss Nettie Spencer remembered the Fourth as the “big event of the year. Everyone in the countryside got together on that day for the only time in the year.” She continued,

There would be floats in the morning and the one that got the [girls?] eye was the Goddess of Liberty. She was supposed to be the most wholesome and prettiest girl in the countryside — if she wasn’t she had friends who thought she was. But the rest of us weren’t always in agreement on that…Following the float would be the Oregon Agricultural College cadets, and some kind of a band. Sometimes there would be political effigies.

Just before lunch – and we’d always hold lunch up for an hour – some Senator or lawyer would speak. These speeches always had one pattern. First the speaker would challenge England to a fight and berate the King and say that he was a skunk. This was known as twisting the lion’s tail. Then the next theme was that any one could find freedom and liberty on our shores. The speaker would invite those who were heavy laden in other lands to come to us and find peace. The speeches were pretty fiery and by that time the men who drank got into fights and called each other Englishmen. In the afternoon we had what we called the ‘plug uglies’ — funny floats and clowns who took off on the political subjects of the day…The Fourth was the day of the year that really counted then. Christmas wasn’t much; a Church tree or something, but no one twisted the lion’s tail.

Rural Life in the 1870s”. Miss Nettie Spencer, interviewee; Walker Winslow, interviewer; Portland, Oregon, December 15, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Boy on Float in Fourth of July Parade. Vale, Oregon. Russell Lee, photographer, July 1941. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black and White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division
Wrestling Matches, July 4th celebration, Ashville, Ohio. Ben Shahn, photographer, Summer 1938. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black and White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

Down South the celebration was much the same. Ninety-six-year-old Dr. Samuel B. Lathan recalled the Independence Day celebrations of his South Carolina childhood:

The Fourth of July was observed at Caldwell Cross Roads. The military companies of infantry would assembly here from the surrounding counties making up a brigade. A drill and inspection were had, and a dress parade followed. There was an old cannon mounted on the field. The honor of firing it was assigned to Hugh Reed, who had been in the artillery of Napoleon’s army at Waterloo and afterward emigrated to South Carolina. A great barbecue and picnic dinner would be served; candidates for military, state, and national offices would speak; hard liquor would flow; and each section would present its ‘bully of the woods’ in a contest for champion in a fist and skull fight. Butting, biting, eye gouging, kicking, and blows below the belt were barred. It was primitive prize fighting.

Dr. Samuel B. Lathan”. W. W. Dixon, interviewer; Winnboro, South Carolina, June 28, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Watching Greased Pig Race, on the Fourth of July. Vale, Oregon. Russell Lee, photographer, July 1941. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black and White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

Use the online resources of the Library of Congress to learn more about Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence:


Today in History – July 3

Playwright, songwriter, dancer, actor, theater owner, and producer George M. Cohan was born on July 3, 1878, in Providence, Rhode Island. (Some sources report his date of birth as July 4.) As a young boy, he and his sister toured New England and the Midwest with their parents as the Four Cohans, a vaudeville act, for which he also wrote sketches and songs. In 1904, Cohan opened in the Broadway production Little Johnny Jones. That play, which Cohan also directed and for which he wrote the book, music, and lyrics (including the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), catapulted him to national attention.

Give my regards to Broadway,
remember me to Herald Square,
Tell all the gang at Forty-Second street,
that I will soon be there,
Whisper of how I’m yearning
To mingle with the old time throng,
Give my regards to old Broadway
and say that I’ll be there, e’er long.

“Give My Regards to Broadway.” George M. Cohan, composer; New York: F.A. Mills, 1904. Historic Sheet Music Collection, 1800 to 1922. Music Division

[Portrait of George M. Cohan]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Oct. 23, 1933. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Cohan is best known for the innovative Broadway musicals that he produced in the 1920s, such as The Tavern (1920-21), The Song and Dance Man (1923-24), and American Born (1925). He later made memorable appearances in Ah, Wilderness! (1933-34) and I’d Rather Be Right (1937-38).

A gifted composer of popular songs, Cohan wrote such favorites as “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” His career was the subject of the movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and the Broadway musical George M! (1968-69).

The popularity of Cohan’s World War I song “Over There” is attested to by the variety of sheet music releases shown below.

“Over There”. George M Cohan, composer; Willam Jerome Publishing Corp., New York NY, 1917. Patriotic Melodies. Music Division
“Over There”. George M Cohan, composer; Leo Feist Inc., New York NY, 1917. Patriotic Melodies. Music Division
“Over There”. George M Cohan, composer; Herman Darewski Music Publishing Co.. London, England, 1917. Patriotic Melodies. Music Division


Today in History – July 2

On July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau shot and fatally wounded the newly inaugurated U.S. President James A. Garfield in the lobby of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Depot in Washington, D.C., as he yelled, “I am a stalwart and Arthur is now President of the United States!” 1 Guiteau blamed the president for not selecting him for a job at the U.S. Consulate in Paris.

In the President’s madness he has wrecked the grand old Republican party, and for this he dies.

Comment of Charles Guiteau, eighteen days before shooting President Garfield, quoted from evidence given at Guiteau’s trial, in John K. Porter’s closing speech to the jury, January 23, 1882.2

Washington, D.C.—The attack on the President’s life—Scene in the ladies’ room of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot—The arrest of the assassin; from sketches by our special artist’s [sic] A. Berghaus and C. Upham. Illustration in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 16, 1881, pp. 332-333. Prints & Photographs Division

Charles Guiteau likely suffered from mental illness, as many reports of his behavior would attest. Born in Illinois, he lived an erratic life, attempting several unsuccessful careers before turning to the practice of law in Chicago. His wife, to whom he was reportedly abusive, divorced him in 1874 after five years of marriage. In the early 1860s, Guiteau was affiliated with the utopian Oneida Community in upstate New York. He returned to religion with renewed fervor in the late 1870s, styling himself a preacher and theologian, and publishing several sermons as well as The Truth: A Companion to the Bible, which was largely plagiarized from the writings of Oneida founder John Humphrey Noyes.

Guiteau was next inspired by national politics, and in 1880 he published a speech in support of Garfield’s candidacy. When, following the election, he failed in his attempts to gain a diplomatic appointment from Garfield, he took advantage of factionalism within the Republican Party to switch his allegiance to the more conservative “Stalwart” cause. By the spring of 1881, Guiteau had what he called a divine inspiration to take the president’s life, in order to heal the party and save the nation. He even purchased a pearl-handled revolver for the act, because he thought that it would look good in a museum afterwards. Suffering from such high-minded delusions, Guiteau was later surprised to discover that his actions were deplored by Garfield’s political opponents and supporters alike.

In spite of Guiteau’s manifest insanity at his trial, his attorneys were unable to gain an acquittal on that basis—it was, however, one of the first uses of the modern insanity defense in a criminal court. After a six-month trial that sparked great public interest, Guiteau was found guilty and hanged on June 30, 1882.

Mulley, A. E. Frew, Charles Julius Guiteau, The Assassin. Being a Copious and Correct Phrenological Delineation of his Character, title page, New York: Gardner & Co., [1881].

President Garfield did not die immediately, but lingered for eleven weeks, during which time surgeons repeatedly attempted to find the bullet that had lodged in his back. In spite of Joseph Lister’s discoveries regarding the use of antiseptics in surgery, the practice of sterilization had not caught on, and Garfield’s wound was probed by many unwashed fingers. The resulting infection, not the bullet, caused Garfield’s eventual death.

Events Related to the Assassination of President Garfield. William A. Skinkle, artist; Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. 52, no. 1351 (1881 August 20)pp. 412-413. Prints & Photographs Division

Alexander Graham Bell had been experimenting with the design of a metal detector based on a device that corrected interference on telephone lines. Hoping to locate the bullet and save Garfield’s life, Bell constructed a metal detector derived from an induction balance invented by his friend David Hughes, and traveled to Washington, D.C. in mid-July to attempt its use. To Bell’s great disappointment, and despite trials over several weeks, the device failed to pinpoint the location of the bullet, which was apparently too deeply lodged to be detected.

On September 6, Garfield was sent to the New Jersey shore in an attempt to aid his recovery. Despite initial signs of improvement, he died two weeks later on September 19. Vice president Chester A. Arthur became president of the United States on September 20, 1881. Garfield’s funeral was held in Evansville, Indiana six days later.

Garfield’s incapacitation sparked a constitutional crisis, as the Cabinet was divided over whether the vice president should assume the office of the incapacitated president or merely act in his stead. It was not until 1967, with the passage of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution, that the question of the succession of power was fully addressed. Today, the vice president assumes the office of president in the event that a sitting president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

Twenty years after Garfield’s assassination, on September 6, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot and fatally wounded President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley’s assassination was the third such national tragedy in thirty-seven years.

The Martyred Presidents. Edwin S. Porter, camera; United States: Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1901. The Last Days of a President: Films of McKinley and The Pan-American Exposition, 1901. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division


Today in History – July 1

The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863. Emboldened by his victory at Chancellorsville, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had decided to invade the North. In September of the previous year, he had ventured north into Maryland where, at Antietam, the bloodiest day of the war occurred. Although the battle was a draw, Lee’s invasion was turned back, but the next summer he made another foray northward.

…he can still remember the peaches on the trees across the field, and the corn being knee high, and how hot it was the day they fought.

William Munroe Graves.” Miss Effie Cowan, interviewer; Mart, Texas, ca. 1936-1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Officer of the Confederate Army. Julian Vannerson, photographer, March, 1864. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division
Portrait of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, Officer of the Federal Army. Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, between 1860 and 1865. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division
Portrait of Brig. Gen. John Buford (Maj. Gen. from July 1, 1863), Officer of the Federal Army. Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, between 1860 and 1863. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division
Portrait of Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet, Officer of the Confederate Army. Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, between 1860-1865. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

On June 30, General John Buford of the Union’s Army of the Potomac and his cavalry had taken possession of Seminary Ridge west of Gettysburg. Union General George Reynolds arrived with the First Corps on July 1 to assist Buford. Reynolds opened the battle but was struck by a bullet and killed before noon. His death set the tone for the day. Both armies suffered devastating losses on the first day of the battle, but Union losses proved much greater. While the first day of the battle was counted as a Confederate victory, the tide turned on July 2 and the battle came to be viewed as the turning point of the Civil War.

So it ends, this lesser battle of the first day,
Starkly disputed and piecemeal won and lost
By corps-commanders who carried no magic plans
Stowed in their sleeves, but fought and held as they could.
It is past. The board is staked for the greater game
Which is to follow…

John Brown’s Body, by Stephen Vincent Benet. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1928), 294.

Gettysburg Camp, July 1-2-3, 1913. G.S. Carney, photographer, cJuly 1913. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division. This photo shows the fifty-year reunion of the soldiers who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.

William Munroe Graves recalls the stories his fellow veterans told at the seventy-five-year reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg:

Maj.- Gen. O.R. Gillette who was in Davis Brigade, Heaths Division, the Army of Northern Virginia… told of how… the Army of Northern Virginia rolled northward… to strike at Harrisburg and Philadelphia to find shoes for the rebel soldiers bare feet, and food to fill the knapsacks which were almost empty of parched corn rations. He remembered how Lee’s war-tired men came out of the valley of the Shenandoah to meet Meade’s army of the Potomac as it reached out along the roads that centered like the spokes of a wheel at Gettysburg, and how they met and fought and forgot they ever needed shoes…

William Munroe Graves.” Miss Effie Cowan, interviewer; Mart, Texas, ca. 1936-1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division


Today in History – June 30

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, Senate Bill 203, on June 30, 1864. The legislation gave California the Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.”

…[T]he wonders of this region of sublimity, have been a source of inspiration to visitors, but none have been able to describe it to the satisfaction of those who followed after them.

Discovery of the Yosemite, and the Indian War of 1851…, by Houghton Bunnell Lafayette. New York: F.H. Revell Company, c1892. 246. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Panorama of Yosemite Valley[California]. Haines Photo Co., c1915. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division
El Capitan. Thomas Hill, artist; Boston : Published by L. Prang & Co., Boston, [1871]. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

The newly appointed Yosemite Board of Commissioners confronted the dual task of preserving the magnificent landscape while providing for public recreation. With remarkable foresight, board member and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted recognized that these goals could conflict. In his 1865 Draft of Preliminary Report upon the Yosemite and Big Tree Grove, Olmsted warns that “the slight harm which the few hundred visitors of this year might do, if no care were taken to prevent it, would not be slight, if it should be repeated by millions.”

His concern about overuse of the park was ignored by the Board of Commissioners, and the Report never reached the state legislature.

As Olmsted predicted, the Yosemite Valley and the Big Tree Grove quickly became a “must see” vacation destination. In the 1870s, California tourist Mary Cone traveled by ferry, railroad, stagecoach, wagon, and horseback to reach the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. In Two Years In California, she describes eating her lunch “under the shadow and protection of one of these great kings of the forest.”

At about the same time, travel writer Caroline Churchill estimated that a week-to-ten-day trip to Yosemite cost $150 dollars including transportation. Despite the expense, Churchill notes:

It is a subject of much regret among the traveling public, that the question of the quality of food served to the unfortunate traveler cannot be made a matter of special legislation. A race of men must deteriorate when fed upon refuse food…I sincerely believe that this…is half the cause of there being so much intemperance in this State.

Over the Purple Hills, or Sketches of Travel in California, Embracing All the Important Points Usually Visited by Tourists, by Caroline M. Churchill. Denver: Mrs. C.M. Churchill, 1881. p127-28. “California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. General Collections

However, cost and discomfort were forgotten when:

… the great Yosemite Valley first breaks upon the vision, with a realizing sense of its grandeur. Here the rocks lift their towering heads so loftily to the sky, and the precipices are so fearfully deep, that mighty streams all turn to tears when rushing by, because of taking such a leap.

Over the Purple Hills…, p133. “California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. General Collections

Spectacular Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, [between 1980 and 2006]. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

Yet California proved unable to care adequately for these extraordinary lands, and by 1890, public sentiment had begun to demand the return of the park to the federal government. Naturalist John Muir was among Yosemite’s most eloquent and outspoken supporters. His articles and books describing the park’s natural wonders inspired public support for the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890 and its expansion through the recession of the California parklands in 1905-6. In the highly popular Our National Parks (1901), Muir devoted six chapters to Yosemite. This passage is typical of his reverence for the park:

Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things. Nearly all the park is a profound solitude. Yet it is full of charming company, full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and eager enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons on life, mountain-building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful of humanity.

Our National Parks, by John Muir. New York: Houghton Mifflin and company, 1901. 78. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Today, Yosemite National Park encompasses nearly 1,200 square miles of the central Sierra Nevada mountain range. With elevations as high as 13,000 feet above sea level, the park preserves alpine wilderness, groves of Giant Sequoias and the Yosemite Valley’s splendid cliffs, waterfalls, wildflowers, and impressive rock formations.

Mirror Lake,Yosemite, Carleton E. Watkins, photographer, ca. 1865. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Carleton E. Watkins was one of California’s early commercial photographers. In the 1860s, he created some of the first and most important photographs of the Yosemite region.

“Fallen Monarch,” September 15, 1911, Mariposa Big Tree Grove. [Yosemite National Park, California] Pacific Photo Co., c1911. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division